Dynamics of wind-driven estuarine-shelf exchange in the Narragansett Bay estuary

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Physical exchange between estuarine and continental shelf waters impacts flushing dynamics of the estuary and determines rates of ocean inputs of nutrients and plankton. To investigate the occurrence and propagation of shelf water intrusions into the Narragansett Bay estuary, we collected velocity data near the estuarine-shelf interface during three summer periods. These data were compared to environmental forcing factors, including wind velocity, tidal mixing and river discharge. Results suggest a background cyclonic flow within the two passages of the estuary based on mean inflow in the channel on the eastern side of the estuary and mean outflow on the western shoals. Within the lower estuary this background circulation was perturbed by channel-parallel winds. On the shelf outside of the estuary, winds parallel to the coast were associated with cross-shelf flow of deep water. Strong pulses in estuarine-shelf exchange flow fell into two wind-driven modes: responses to direct forcing by down-estuary wind or rebounds following relaxation or reversal of up-estuary wind. Rebound events were common, providing the most dramatic perturbations to the mean background estuarine circulation. A reduction in exchange between Narragansett Bay and shelf waters during prevailing up-estuary winds in the summertime and short-lived pulses in exchange flow under wind reversal events are expected to affect nutrient fluxes and dynamics of hypoxia in the estuary.

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Continental Shelf Research